Theater Review: HEROES OF THE FOURTH TURNING (Rogue Machine’s L.A. premiere at The Matrix Theatre)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on August 22, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a riveting and thought-provoking play that delves into the complexities of ideology, faith, and the generational divide in contemporary America. Written by Will Arbery and premiered in 2019, this Pulitzer Prize-nominated play offers a profound exploration of the ideological tensions that define the modern political landscape, particularly in the context of right-wing thought. Under Guillermo Cienfuegos’ exemplary direction, Rogue Machine‘s L.A. premiere, which opened last Saturday at The Matrix Theatre, is the first truly must-see theatrical event of the year.

“The Fourth Turning” in the title is a simplistic theory advanced by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. The theory proposes that history follows a cycle of four turnings, each lasting about 80 to 100 years. These turnings are: High (unity after crisis), Awakening (challenges to institutions), Unraveling (weakening institutions), and Crisis (intense upheaval). Generational archetypes supposedly influence how society responds to these turnings. The theory has been embraced by the political right due to its predictions of societal crisis, breakdown of institutions, return to traditional values, and anti-globalization sentiments. The previous Crisis was The Great Depression and WWII. And it should be obvious that the new Crisis is now upon us.

Roxanne Hart and Emily James

Set in a quiet backyard in rural Wyoming, the play centers around a gathering of four friends who are all graduates of a conservative Catholic college. Justin is hosting a gathering at his home. At the party are their former college professor Gina, addict Kevin, conservative blogger Teresa, and Emily, whose mother Gina was just named as the College President. Throughout the evening, the characters engage in intense and philosophical conversations about their conservative beliefs, their faith, and their place in a society that seems to be shifting away from their ideals.

Stephen Tyler Howell, Evangeline Edwards, Emily James, Roxanne Hart

As the night progresses and the eclipse nears, tensions rise, and the characters’ interactions become increasingly charged. The play explores the intricacies of their friendships, the clashes that arise from differing viewpoints, and the internal conflicts each character faces. The characters’ discussions reveal their vulnerabilities, fears, and hopes for the future. The talk of the upcoming 2017 solar eclipse adds an almost mystical layer to the narrative, underscoring the characters’ attempts to find meaning and direction amidst an uncertain and changing world.

Stephen Tyler Howell and Emily James

Arbery’s writing is masterful in its ability to capture the nuances of each character’s ideology and the internal conflicts they grapple with. The characters, though firmly rooted in their conservative beliefs, are far from one-dimensional. Their conversations are laden with philosophical debates, personal struggles, and moments of vulnerability that humanize them and make them relatable to a wider audience. Arbery’s skillful balance between intellectual discourse and emotional authenticity keeps the play engaging and accessible, even to those of us whose political opinions are diametrically opposed. The play doesn’t shy away from showing the intertwined threads, whether conscious or subconscious, that connect specific aspects of conservative American Catholicism with white supremacy. However, it deliberately avoids demonizing or oversimplifying the complex and intelligent personalities whose perspectives arguably border on the realm of fascism.

Emily James, Samuel Garnett, Stephen Tyler Howell

The play’s strength lies in its ability to spark contemplation and dialogue long after the curtain falls. It doesn’t aim to provide easy answers or solutions to the complex issues it raises. Instead, it invites the audience to confront their own beliefs and biases, challenging them to consider alternative viewpoints and grapple with the uncertainty that accompanies a rapidly changing world.

Evangeline Edwards and Samuel Garnett

The performances in Heroes are equally commendable. The cast, guided by Cienfuegos sensitive direction, bring an exceptional level of depth to their roles, breathing life into characters that could easily have been reduced to stereotypes. Their chemistry and delivery allow the audience to witness the genuine friendships and complex dynamics that exist among the characters, making their clashes even more impactful.

Emily James, Stephen Tyler Howell, Roxanne Hart,
Evangeline Edwards, and Samuel Garnett

Stephen Tyler Howell is masterful as Justin, a military vet, an outdoorsman, and a conservative catholic who is dogmatically conservative. Howell portrays Justin as complex and multi-dimensional, struggling with his own doubts and vulnerabilities hiding beneath his dogma.

Evangeline Edwards as Teresa burns up the stage as a highly intelligent and ambitious alt-right blogger with a growing online following. For her, the Fourth Turning theory is in important political touchstone.

Samuel Garnett breaks your heart as Kevin, a devout catholic with a serious drinking problem and a porn addiction.

Emily James plays Emily, a recent graduate whose mother just got name as president of the college. She suffers from a debilitating mystery illness and has a heart of gold. Her brand of “compassionate conservatism” is in conflict with the “hard-right orientation” of her friends.

Tony-nominee and TV-Vet Roxanne Hart (Four Places) plays Gina, the new college president who shows. Gina reveals herself as a traditional conservative and attacks Teresa’s Trumpian ideas. Their fiery argument is one of the highlights of the play.

Evangeline Edwards and Samuel Garnett

The play’s intimate staging, set in a single location over the course of one evening, enhances the feeling of immersion. The sparse Wyoming landscape (realistic sets by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) becomes a metaphorical canvas upon which the characters’ ideologies and personal struggles are projected. Lighting design by Dan Weingarten uses the night-time setting to effectively cast shadows that heighten tension.

Evangeline Edwards, Samuel Garnett, Stephen Tyler Howell

Cienfuegos’ direction carefully brought out the depth of the characters’ interactions and the layers of meaning in their conversations. His staging emphasized the subtleties in the characters’ emotions, allowing the tension and conflict to build naturally as the night progressed. The pacing and rhythm of the dialogue were calibrated beautifully, maintaining the play’s intensity.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning, produced by Justin Okin and John Perrin Flynn, is a remarkable and timely piece of theater that confronts contemporary political and ideological tensions with intellectual rigor and emotional depth. Will Arbery’s insightful writing, combined with stellar performances and thoughtful production elements, results in a play that captivates, challenges, and lingers in the minds of its audience. Its exploration of faith, friendship, and the search for meaning in a divisive world makes it a must-see for anyone interested in thought-provoking theater that engages with the complexities of our time.

photos by John Perrin Flynn

Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Rogue Machine
Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue
Fri, Sat, and Mon at 8; Sun at 3
ends on October 2, 2023
for tickets, visit Rogue Machine

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

JM August 28, 2023 at 11:06 am

I could not disagree more with this review. This 2 hour intermission free blather-fest is little more than a chance for the playwright to point out to the audience how intellectually brilliant he is. Look at me….I’m smart! So many big words … so few big ideas. Listening to all the many …and I do mean many … monotonous monologues that drone on with nothing to say becomes mind numbing. Why make your point in 2 succinct lines when you can stretch it out to a 20 minute rant. We get it. There’s 2 sides to every story. Conservatives can be good people. Hardly earth shaking news. Ocassionally some juicy gossip and deep dark secrets are alluded to but alas they go nowhere and it’s back to the debate team for a rebuttal. The final minutes reveal 2 bizarre elements that are neither explored or explained leaving the viewer with a great big “huh?”


Michael M. Landman-Karny August 29, 2023 at 11:38 am


I am not going to convince you of the brilliance of the play. I will however, try to address most of your points for those who are weighing whether to see the play.

While “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” may be very “talky”, it’s important to emphasize that the play’s dialogue serves a purpose. The extended conversations allow for a deep exploration of complex ideas and themes. The talky nature can be seen as a deliberate artistic choice to delve into the intellectual and emotional landscape of the characters and the larger context they inhabit.

he play’s “talkiness” can be seen as an invitation for the audience to actively engage with the material. Instead of providing easy answers, the play encourages viewers to grapple with the ideas presented, promoting critical thinking and fostering a deeper understanding of the themes explored.

As for Arbery showcasing his own intellect, it’s essential to recognize that authors often infuse elements of their own experiences and perspectives into their works. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are solely showcasing their own intellect. Arbery might be using the characters and their conversations to explore various viewpoints and ideas, rather than solely expressing his own intelligence.

I’m not going to address the final minutes as I intentionally write reviews where I reveal just a little of the plot, letting the review readers go to the theatre and have the story unfold for them there.


JM September 26, 2023 at 6:32 pm

Thanks for the critic-splaining. You clearly take yourself as seriously as the playwright takes himself. You completely missed my point. I am well aware of the “importance” of the issues and it’s great to see someone addressing them in a thoughtful manner. My problem was not with the subject matter but with the repetitive style and overbearing and unnecessary verbiage that left me feeling as if I had attended a lecture and not a play. Judging by the comments I heard leaving the theater I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. When I attend a show I want to be enlightened, engaged and entertained. Heroes of the Fourth Turning had great potential which would have greatly benefited from the playwright cutting some of the dialogue, cutting to the chase and presenting the characters as live breathing human beings and not debate club members relentlessly driving home their opinions until they pummel their opponents into submission. But then I have only been seeing shows for 60 years…so what do I know.


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